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TV ad campaign opposes proposed Iowa nuclear plant

David Pitt, Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- A group opposed to the development of new nuclear power plants in Iowa launched a television ad campaign in Iowa on Wednesday, raising questions about the safety of nuclear power.

Friends of the Earth's advertising campaign comes as a legislative committee will consider a bill Thursday that outlines how utility rates would be set if MidAmerican Energy, Iowa's largest power provider, builds a nuclear power plant in Iowa. Costs for the plant are estimated at $2 billion.

The environmental group, based in Washington, D.C., spent about $8,400 on the 30-second commercial that is running in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City markets.

The ad starts out with an explosion and dramatic background music. A narrator starts in: "One year ago Japan was rocked by nuclear disaster proving that nuclear energy is dangerous and costly ..." referring to the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, where a tsunami knocked out power to the plant. The ad also expresses concerns about plans to increase consumer utility rates to pay for construction, saying customers shouldn't have to pay up front before a power plant is even built.

MidAmerican Energy countered the television ad campaign with its own video that features CEO Bill Fehrman. It runs more than 3½ minutes on YouTube and refutes some of the criticism of the proposed legislation.

The Senate Commerce Committee will consider the bill Thursday morning. Chairman Matt McCoy said he has enough votes to get it out of committee. But its fate in the full Senate is uncertain. McCoy said it lacks sufficient votes from Democrats to pass, so the measure needs significant Republican support.

The bill is a work in progress, and several amendments address opponents' concerns, said McCoy, a Democrat.

One gives the Iowa Utilities Board significant power to stop the project if it determines the nuclear plant is not in the state's best interest. Other amendments expand the period for cost recovery and give the utilities board more time to hire staff with expertise in nuclear energy.

Another amendment would not allow the company to increase customer bills to recover costs of the project until construction work started. Even then, MidAmerican Energy could only collect what the utilities board approved to be prudent expenditures, McCoy said.

MidAmerican Energy's CEO said Iowa needs to keep all its options open for energy, including nuclear power, to allow the state to compete both nationally and globally. Fehrman said the bill gives the Iowa Utilities Board, the state's independent utility regulatory agency, control over the nuclear plant decision, much like it would have for any energy project.

"I need to make it very clear that we are not asking for any sort of prepayment from customers before we receive project approval," he said.

MidAmerican Energy will invest the amount needed to build the plant over an 8- to 10-year period. Customers will be charged for the financing costs and the company will be paid back for the 40- to 60-year life of the plant, he said.

Even with the amendments, some opponents of the proposed legislation aren't satisfied.

"We really believe that this is a bad bill for consumers," said Mike Carberry, director of Green State Solutions, an Iowa-based consulting firm specializing in environmental issues. "First of all, the Friends of the Earth and many other concerned Iowans believe that nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and expensive.

"What we really need to have is a plan in Iowa that looks at all the alternatives including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and natural gas," he said.

McCoy said tougher federal regulations for coal plants likely will result in the state losing as much as 40 percent of the electricity generated by coal generation in the coming years.

Currently, the state gets about 72 percent of its electricity from coal plants. The state's only existing nuclear power plant provides nearly 8 percent. Wind turbines provide nearly 16 percent, gas provides about 2 percent and the rest comes from hydroelectric and other renewable sources.

McCoy said it's the responsibility of state leaders to come up with reasonable options for electricity generation.

Natural gas is an option that many nuclear opponents frequently mention, McCoy said. Though it may be relatively inexpensive now, he said, it won't be cheap forever.